The Flaw of Flawed Characters

I cringe every time I see authors brag about their “flawed characters” as if that’s a good thing. Apparently, somewhere along the line, writers were told not to write perfect characters but to give them flaws, and so writers everywhere are assiduously flawing their characters. Well, they are wrong.

There is no such thing as a perfect character. If a character can do everything, meet every challenge the first time, and do it all without damaging a single hair on his/her head, the only thing perfect about that character is that it is perfectly boring, which makes it far from a perfect character. Adding flaws to such a character only compounds the problem, making the character not only boring but trite. Aren’t you sick of the cynical detective struggling with a drinking problem? Or the overextended single mother struggling with the rebellious teenager? Or the lonely person struggling to find love but who is too stupid to see the love disguised as a friend or even enemy? Well, you might not be, but I sure am.

The best characters are not flawed characters, but those facing terrible dilemmas who are forced to work against their strengths. If they have a lot of knowledge, they are most compelling when they need to act without being able to use the knowledge, perhaps using logic, intuition, or snap judgments instead. If they have armed services experience or strong physical skills, they are most interesting when forced to use their minds and wits. If they tend to be serious, they are most fun when forced to rely on their humor, or vice versa. Anything else is just cheap.

One thing most people say about my main characters is that they are real. And guess what? There isn’t a flawed character in the bunch. Not a single character drinks too much (okay, Kid Rags in Daughter Am I might tipple, but he never gets drunk or lets his drinking get in the way of business). Not a single character cheats on his or her spouse. Not a single character is mean. Not a single character makes stupid mistakes. Not a single character is self-absorbed. (Well, Jeremy King, the world-renowned actor in A Spark of Heavenly Fire is focused on himself, but that isn’t a flaw but the personality trait that makes him a great actor.) Not a single character gets into fights just for the sake of proving how flawed they are — all the fights are to protect themselves or others. Every character acts to the best of his or her ability at all times, and if the best isn’t good enough, they get better.

Instead of flaws, my characters have character traits. For example, in Daughter Am I, at first the hero Mary Stuart tends be a bit of a pushover, going with the flow because she simply doesn’t care enough about the outcome of any situation to fight over it. When she makes the decision to find out who her grandparents were and why someone wanted them dead, she becomes almost obsessive in her quest, even going so far as arranging a meeting with a notorious hit man and various other shady characters. And when she finds something to care deeply about — the octogenarians who accompanied her on her journey — she becomes steely in her determination to protect them at all costs. Are these traits indications of flaws? Of course not. They are indications of a true-to-life character grabbing her destiny with both hands and going along for the ride. Flaws would only get in the way.

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6 Responses to “The Flaw of Flawed Characters”

  1. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    In my own writing I haven’t thought much either way about flawed characters. I think along the lines of what the character gets out of being the way he or she happens to be and how to challenge what they get out of it. In my latest effort, Desk Job, I am more interested in the social machine and how it grinds people to fit into certain round and square holes. A bit of Franz Kafka in this way of thinking and working. We all choose our path and we can get stuck on the path we have chosen. Sometimes we don’t see that there are other paths we can leap onto and sometimes when we do we are not willing to pay the price in switching over.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      As you say, it’s all about the characters, who they are, what they want, and they way they area challenged. That’s what makes a great character, not phony flaws.

  2. Lisa Says:

    I have enjoyed reading your blog. I am just at the very beginning in my own journey of becoming a writer and discovering the writer in me. I appreciate your posts as they are both insightful and helpful. I have been wondering lately about how to make my characters realistic without them being over the top. I would agree though, that characters should be challenged against their own strengths or weakness. I believe that is exactly what I enjoy the most when I read a good novel. Thanks!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Thank you, Lisa. I’m pleased you stopped by. The more characters have to struggle to reach their goals, the more real your characters become. If everything falls into place without their having to work to attain what they want, then the character falls flat. Readers like to see how characters deal with insurmountable problems or overcome their own indadequacies.

  3. sandy Says:

    Always did prefer the idiosyncracies of real characters to the boring predictability of stereotypes.

  4. lvgaudet Says:

    I don’t look at it as adding flaws to my characters. Yes, every character is naturally flawed. So is every person alive in some way, however large or small. Many have multiple flaws.

    The cliche of the alcoholic cop? Considering the rotating shift, long hours, and high job stress, all of which negatively affects their family life too, is that cliche any surprise? Not to me. In my WIP (still trying to name it), the detective does crave the booze, along with other things. But I made that as a piece of the character, not a driving force.

    Sometimes cliches become because they are too close to reality.

    For me, I don’t see the sense in focusing on making flawed characters, I try to make characters who act the way I think a regular person would in that situation, and normal people deal with their situations despite their flaws.


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